Nana Chen is a Taipei-based photographer / writer. She has been the travel editor of E-Marginalia.com and an editor at ACNielsen – Taiwan. Born in Taipei, she grew up in the Philippines, Chile, Argentina and the United States. Her photography and paintings have been exhibited in New York, Taipei and Montreal. She is currently shooting for a book on Chinese food culture.
Wayne: You were born in Taiwan, but your family moved around a lot when you were growing up. How does this figure into your urge to express yourself through writing and visual arts? In what ways does it affect how you see things? Can you remember one event from your childhood that speaks to why you moved towards creative _expression?
Nana: Moving as much as I did was devastating. I left Taiwan when I was six. From then on, there were very few constants in my life. As children we had no TV for many years and we rarely saw our parents. Having so much time to ourselves, it was natural to be creative. I rebelled against school, so that gave me even more time to get bored. As a result, I started knitting when I was seven, cooking at eight, gave my brother a horrendous afro perm at eleven, got my first camera from a garage sale at thirteen—just some of the things I remember doing.
On weekends, I’d take pictures of my cousins and my brother while they posed in fashion disasters that I created each week. That was so exciting for me. The same year I started taking pictures, some girls at school were exchanging notebooks they’d decorate the covers of, so I decorated one and suddenly became very popular. But when many girls in school asked to “exchange” notebooks with me. The “exchange” really meant my handing over the notebook and that’d be the end of it.
Luckily, one girl as unpopular as I was, continued to write, filling up several notebooks with me that year. We corresponded until our late 20s and I also started keeping a journal. So, the notebook, or writing, came to be the one constant friend in my life that I could call upon whenever I liked or wherever I moved. There was no need to be scared of being judged, of not fitting in, saying what’s right, having the right accent or looks. I could sit in a crowd of strangers, look down at my notebook and write just how uncomfortable I felt. I suppose writing was a sane and acceptable way to talk to myself. I wrote until my fingers became disfigured. With visual arts, I felt even freer since English is my third language and has the tendency to make me feel quite like a foreigner at times. However, none of these creative outbursts were taken very seriously since the main focus was the violin—“my pain in the neck”—for thirteen years, giving me chronic heartburn for fourteen.
I don’t know how to pinpoint what I see or do as an effect of my growth or experience. I get stuck on this question every time. I know that I am different from a lot of people around me. This depresses and paralyses me at times when I think about it too much. I don’t know if I perceive something a certain way because of my background. It’s tempting to say that when people don’t understand me it’s got to be because of my background, but that’s probably not the case.
Wayne: Despite all the moving your family did, you were drawn back to Taiwan. Why? How did you come back to settle there? How do you see the country differently than those who grew up there? Which subjects in Taiwan seem to speak to you most?
Nana: I returned to Taiwan in 1992. My parents had gone bankrupt and Taipei was where they had family. For me, the choices were quite clear: I could either stay in Atlanta working as a waitress and freelance violinist putting myself through school or dare myself to move to a place I had very little memory of. I knew that it’d be easier with my parents near so we booked three tickets. I hated Taiwan the moment I breathed the air. It was heavy, damp, and smelt strange. Taipei was so noisy, so grey and people didn’t smile and always bumped into me. I felt like a mute as well because I could only speak English and basic Taiwanese.
After six months of watching the BBC and writing in my notebooks, I got out and started taking Chinese classes. I realized just how very sheltered and unexposed to cultures I had become living in Atlanta for nine years. How completely narrow my views were. Travelling to very poor countries has also helped me appreciate what I’ve got. Slowly, and I mean very slowly, I’ve grown to shrug off the old lady who spits next to me and see how much things have improved in Taipei. It is amazing how perceptions can change when one is doing exactly what they want with their life. When there is focus, the very same things that used to drive me crazy become quite trivial.
Maybe I differ from those who grew up here in that I still don’t see Taiwan as my home. I know that if things don’t work out, I’ve got the US passport to settle elsewhere. A lot of my friends do not have the option and I see their struggle. And perhaps in seeing their struggle I’ve joined them subconsciously in trying to make things work here. I have packed and unpacked too many times to say where I will go next or if I will stay for good.
When I pick up my camera, I tend to focus on subjects related to people and food. I’m currently shooting for a book project on Chinese food culture; it’s bringing me closer to the street vendors or restauranteurs whom I’ve built a relationship with over the years. It will also take me to Hong Kong to shoot the markets and other food scenes. I’m quite looking forward to that. Only thing about shooting food is: it’s torture to know that with every shot I take, the food cools down a degree more.